Is Feminism Another "Fword"? the Editors Interview Rosemary Radford Ruether. (Special Spring Book Section)

U.S. Catholic, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Is Feminism Another "Fword"? the Editors Interview Rosemary Radford Ruether. (Special Spring Book Section)


Just because Rosemary Radford Ruether is getting close to retirement doesn't mean she's going to stop stirring things up. First as a civil rights activist and now as one of the world's preeminent feminist theologians, Ruether has consistently called for equality and inclusivity in society and in the church.

In June she will leave Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the United Methodist school of theology in Evanston, Illinois where she has taught for more than two decades, for the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California, where she will teach for three more years. Then, she and her husband, Herman, plan to retire in Southern California.

Although she will soon be leaving the classroom, Ruether's influence will surely continue. As probably the most widely read feminist theologian, she has more than 30 books to her name. Her most recent works include Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon, 2000) and Women and Redemption: A Theological History (Fortress, 1998).

A recipient of the U.S. CATHOLIC Award for furthering the cause of women in the church, Ruether returned to our offices to talk about the state of feminism and feminist theology today.

The last time we interviewed you was 17 years ago. What's changed since then?

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure there's been that much change. Backlashes against feminism mean that old patterns are reasserted and sometimes reasserted in more extreme ways than before. Interestingly, the recent media focus on the Taliban helped people realize that the oppression of women not only isn't over, but that significant right-wing religious movements--not just in Islam--are creating extreme reactionary repression, probably worse than it ever existed in the classical traditions of these religions.

In a certain sense, this has put the issue back on the agenda in a way that can't just be dismissed.

What about in American society?

I think feminism has helped open up the professions. Women have always worked, obviously, including a large amount of unpaid labor. But feminism helped create much broader access to better-paying jobs. What hasn't been solved, though --and is really necessary--is more available, less expensive child care and the adjustment of work hours. That was all part of the feminist agenda in the 1960s: shorter, more flexible work hours and daycare.

The feminist movement didn't envision both parents being away all the time and somebody else taking care of the children. They envisioned subsidized child care and flexible, shorter work hours, so that kids might need five or six hours a day, not 10, of daycare.

My daughter is a lawyer in downtown Chicago. She left a better-paying job for a city job because it gave her good maternity leave and she was able to work three days a week instead of five. She's taken a huge pay cut, but she's been able to keep a foot in her profession. Of course, their child care bills are astronomical and they might as well have been sending their kids to Harvard all these years. Who can do this except professionals?

Poorer women have to work, but they have very little access to opportunities to balance their lives. The contradiction between classes is still very extreme, and it's hard to address the issue because the assumption is, "Now you have a job, so what are you complaining about?"

Some younger women hear the "f word"--feminism--and are really reluctant to identify with it, even though they benefit from the movement.

The extreme image of the word feminist is that these are unlovely women who hate men and are lesbians. The dominant culture poisons critical words. As soon as you hear words like socialism, feminism, and so on, you conjure up extreme images. Obviously I don't agree with it, but you get a stereotype like that going and very few people want to claim the word. …

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